Thursday, May 31, 2012

Skyrim vs Dragon Age

So while I’m recovering from some minor surgery I had a day to play my “alternate” game of Skyrim. I broke down a few weeks ago and picked up a copy and started a play-through as a spell caster. This week I started up a sword and board character focusing on heavy armor and direct combat. My magic user on the other hand is all stealth and cloth robes. As an aside, why is it that the super powerful Archmage Robes have to have this dorky hood attached? My mage is rocking out this home enchanted circlet of magicka recovery and it’s hidden in this silly hood.

But as I’m playing through a second time with my warrior (who I have decided looks far better without a helmet than with so screw the armor bonuses for now; if I get in a fight where I think I need that 20% I’ll put one on) I’m left thinking about how these two characters are different.

And I realize why it is that Dragon Age is a superior game in many ways.

When I started playing Dragon Age Origins I first made a mage character. She was lead through trials in the tower of sorcery and challenged to define herself as someone who follows the rules or is willing to bend (and break) them for others she cares about. There were consequences to her actions and choices, and over my first few hours of game play I could see a real character emerge as I played.

When I rolled my second character in DAO, I instead made an elven warrior, starting off in the ghettos of the capital city, and earning her freedom through bloodshed. By the time her prologue was complete I had fleshed out more of her backstory beyond what was provided in the game, and I had a pretty good feeling for what she would do in any given situation and the kinds of character growth she might be capable of having.

That is one grand difference between Computer RPG’s, table top RPG’s and novels. It is hard to plan, in an CRPG, for character development. At the table top a game master can throw curves at you, but it’s the rare CRPG that saves those curves for late game. Usually they work hard in the beginning to define character, and then let you use that character to really kick tail through the content.

All told I started somewhere around a half dozen games of DAO, and in each one my character had a story, a history, and a personal quest. In addition the game world was built to encourage me to make choices. To decide when to sell out my principles for the bigger picture, when to take a spouse and who it would be. There were always consequences for choices.

In Skyrim your character, again, has dozens of choices. So far, however, the only one I’ve seen that has any reaching impact is how you pick a side in the civil war. Joining the companions or not seems to be more or less up to you. Joining the mages guild, again, more or less up to you. Going after this group or that group, it’s a lot of “if you want to, go for it.”

On the one hand it’s profoundly liberating. You can just explore and kill and loot and collect. And for the most part you don’t need to worry overly about why your character is killing and looting and collecting. There are the occasional dialogue choices but for the most part they boil down to “Yes I’ll do that”, “Yes I’ll do that but I’ll be a jerk about it” and “No.” Contrast that to DAO where you’re making moral and philosophical choices that range from sacrificing party members on an altar to deciding who should be king.

I’ve often held up gaming as a means for consuming literature but over the last week or two I’ve started to really realize how little I’m consuming with Skyrim. I love it. I absolutely love it. But I believe that a lot of my love comes from the relatively mindless consumption of it. Where portions of DAO are a good bit of high fantasy with great political intrigue, Skyrim is more like a Micheal Bay Popcorn Feature. Lots of high action and special effects, with just enough plot to carry you to the next big bang.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Lydia spotted another cave. Time for some thrilling heroics.

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